What is China's online future?

Whose Century Is It?
A woman takes a selfie in Beijing, September 2015.

There's much we don't know about what the 21st Century will bring. But we’re not just flying blind. We know that certain things matter more now than they used, and others matter less.

One thing that matters a lot is the Internet. It has transformed how we learn and how we connect, and how we come together. In China, there are now more than 600 million Internet users — about twice the population of the entire United States.

With the advent of Chinese social media, starting about a decade ago, they began to connect more, speak out more, challenge the government more. The government has responded by clamping down, especially since Xi Jinping came to power almost three years ago.

If a big country like China, with big aspirations, places significant limits on how its people can use the Internet, does that also limit its potential to be a 21st century power? Seems a good question to be asking, as Chinese president and Party Chief Xi Jinping arrives for a state visit, and speech at the United Nations.

Joining me to mull this over is David Wertime, a senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine, and the founder of Tealeaf Nation — which scours Chinese social media, translates and analyzes the highlights, and offers insight on trends and sentiment appearing online in China.

Below is a lighty edited transcript of the podcast.

MKM: “Coming into this century, there were a lot of predictions coming out of China that if the 20th Century was America’s, this would be China’s.  How do you think that’s working out?

DW: “I think if you look at the last couple of years in China, you get the keen sense that China has a lot of internal problems to overcome, that Xi Jinping has monumental obstacles to what he wants to do, whether that’s environmental issues within the country, whether that’s the GDP growth rate, whether that’s the rising cost of labor in China. I don’t think that we can yet declare this century to belong to China, or for that matter, to anybody else. “

MKM:  “Well, and indeed, and if you go back to the 20th century, and 1915, how could anyone have known how it was going to work out?”

David Wertime, senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine, and cofounder of TealeafNation.com, whiich monitors trends and sentiment on China's social emdia

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine, and cofounder of TealeafNation.com, which monitors trends and sentiments on Chinese social media.


Mary Kay Magistad

DW:  ‘Well, that’s exactly right.  There could very well be, and in fact, there’s likely to be, some massive extrinsic event, which none of us have anticipated, which none of us could anticipate, that will make any prediction that I or anyone else offers completely moot.”

“So I think when it comes to China, it’s long been the case that China looks mightier from the outside than it does from the inside.  And that’s probably true of most any country on the face of the earth.  But I think this schism from what we see from the outside, and what China feels like on the inside, is particularly large.”

MKM:  How would you describe that schism?

DW:  (Laughs)  Well, when we look at China, from an American standpoint, I think the first thing people often are reacting to, when they react to China, is not China’s inherent strength, but their perception of where they are, and where their country is.  A lot of Americans, I think rightly, feel, in some cases quite rightly, that the last few years haven’t been particularly good to their country or to them, economically.  And so, when we tend to think about China, I think we’re making an implicit contrast with that.

  And what people hear is, China’s growing much faster than we are, which is, statistically, absolutely true.  And so they project onto China a degree of organization, a degree of internal unity, a degree of forward planning, that may not actually be there.  And I think what’s happened in China over the last few decades has been absolutely amazing, there’s no question about it.  And I think we can all be thankful that hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty.  There’s just nothing to say about that, other than that it is a good for the world.  And it’s helped reduce worldwide poverty rates massively, in ways that nobody could have anticipated.

“But a lot of the prosperity that ensued after Deng instituted reforms, was the Communist Party getting out of the private lives of its citizens, and allowing its citizens to express their entrepreneurial instincts, which were already there.

“But a lot of the low-hanging fruit has now been picked.  And this is something that everyone says, of course, that China now needs to transition to a higher quality of growth that isn’t just driven by state investment.  And that transition, so far, isn’t happening.  So I think we can’t necessarily project forward, over the next few decades, the kinds of changes we’ve seen in China over the previous few decades.  Maybe if this had all happened a few decades earlier, or a few decades later, we might be able to say that this is China’s century.  But it just so happened that around the turn of the century, China’s also experiencing this turn, where, I think some of the insecurities that the leadership has probably always had, are becoming a little bit more evident, on the outside, if that makes sense.”

MKM:  Yeah.  So if you think of their insecurities, what do you think are their biggest insecurities, at this moment?

DW: “Look, we’re all trying to read the tealeaves, so to speak.  We’re all trying to divine what China’s leadership may be thinking, since they’re not going to, generally, tell us, outside of certain state pronouncements.   So we all have to divine their mindset.  But I think it’s pretty clear that a lot of the policy choices that China has made are driven by fear, to some extent.”

MKM: “Their own fear?”

D:  “Their own fear.  Their own fear.  The collapse of the Soviet Union is something that I think they still think about a lot.  And you’ve got millions of new college graduates coming online every year that the leadership has to find jobs for.  And I think, it’s got to be one of the hardest, if not the hardest job in the world to try to run China.  In addition to that, you’ve got a leadership whose first instinct is to try to control.  And that instinct doesn’t always serve the leadership well.  The recent stockmarket meddling is a good example.  The Chinese leadership, to some extent, is  putting its own prestige on the line to try to bolster the stock market and fulfill the implicit promises it made through state media, which it never should have made to begin with.  I mean, it’s easy for me to say, in hindsight, but it’s still true.

  “And you’ve got cyberspace, which is my bailiwick.  You’ve got a government that feels that when you have freewheeling dialogue, that’s a problem – on its face.  Forget about whether that leads to any actual protests on the street, whether it leads to any actual instability in the physical world.  The mere shadow of instability in cyberspace is enough to freak the government out a little bit.”

MKM:  “So on this cyberspace part of the question, when did you detect a shift?  Because it seemed like, a few years back, there was a lot more tolerance for debate, and even criticism online.”

D:  “There was.  The Chinese government let it happen.  That doesn’t mean that they liked it.  But I think they were perhaps caught a little flat-footed.  The tradition, of course, of blogging, was around before Chinese social media really took off, but that social media allowed this tradition to find a home, and to become a space for dialogue among different opinion-makers, and I think it caught the Chinese government off-guard.

“You know, I started doing this in late 2011, really looking at this pretty closely.  And the truth is, there was a crackdown that began in August 2013, among certain big opinion-makers in Chinese cyberspace, referred to as “Big Vs.”  And that moment in time shift does broadly correlate to the shift I saw.”

MK:  Wait a minute – Big V?  Explain that.  What is a Big V?

DW:  “So a big V is someone online who, first of all, has a V next to their name, which means their identity has been verified, it’s important enough to verify.  Some of these Big Vs are movie-stars, celebrities.  They may not be interested in bloviated on the political matters of the day, but some of them were.  And some of these big opinion-makers were lawyers, were economists, investors.  And they were willing to say things that you just never, ever would have seen in state media.  And some of their followings numbered in the tens of millions.  And so, they had the ability to really guide the conversation.  And to some extent, they did.   When the Chinese government struck fear into their hearts, it really began to drain Chinese cyberspace of some of the energy it had had.”

“That’s one piece of an effort to bring Chinese cyberspace to heel.  So it’s not like everything turned at once.  But I can say, when I started looking at this stuff, it would take about 10 minutes to find the threads of at least a couple, and maybe several, really exciting, interesting stories that weren’t being reported.  And that has now changed.  If you were to parachute into Chinese social media, sign up right now and start looking, you would think, ‘goodness gracious, there’s really not much here.’  Look, the majority of Internet chatter is always about personal stuff, and food and cats and silly news, and that’s fine, that’s just the way the Internet is.  But you wouldn’t see anything else if you were to just parachute into Chinese social media now.  You’d really need to know where to look. You’d really need to be a sleuth – which is what we’ve had to do.  And so – it’s changed.  It’s definitely changed.

“Also what’s happened is that people now use these private social media platforms, like WeChat, which is among friends, which is like a discussion around a dinner table.  Weibo was like a discussion around a public square, where anyone could pick up the bullhorn.  And if you said something interesting, and someone who was a Big V shared it, it could become the talk of the day.”

“In September of 2013, China issued what isn’t a law, but might as well be, that said that a rumor or a harmful piece of information that’s read more than 5,000 times, or shared more than 500 times, can be punished by up to five years in prison under existing defamation law.  So as you can imagine, people who have that Big V next to their name are not going to be writing or sharing anything that they aren’t absolutely sure is 100 percent on the right side of this fuzzy red line.  And the fuzzy red line is so fuzzy, and so thick, and so mutable, that people have just gotten very, very conservative.”

“What does this all mean, besides for me personally, the difficulty of finding interesting stories on a given day about China?  And I think it is broadly indicative of a number of other bigger underlying issues.  When you talk about China’s national strength, this is a country that wants to transition its economy to one based on personal consumption, ecommerce, innovation,  put a lot of money and energy behind this.  They have the Internet Plus initiative, which – I’m not quite sure yet what it means, but it’s a signal that the Internet is something that the leadership sees as a driving force of innovation and commerce moving into the future.  And yet, in this most important of spaces, the government has cast a pall over so much of what made that Internet a vibrant and dynamic place.”

“The Chinese government, in many things, it can cleave the political from the economic.  And they have the same attitude toward the Internet.  And why not?  They think things have worked for them so far.  Can you have one without the other?  Can you have an Internet that is a dynamic and creative space, but don’t say anything that has to do with the country’s future, or the country’s politics, or even maybe the country’s economics?  I don’t know.  It sounds like a pretty dangerous experiment, if your goal is to have a 21st century economy.”

MKM:  “So as you’re looking at this, as you’re divining the tealeaves, and talking to people in China as well, what sense are you getting?  Are you seeing people kind of shrug their shoulders and say, ‘well, you know, we’ve seen the brakes get slammed on before, this is just another time, we’ll get through this?  Or – this is the new normal, we’ll just have to adjust?  Or – do you think there’s a tension that’s building that isn’t going to hold for much longer? 

DW:  “I think a lot of people in China, when they deal with this stuff, do shrug their shoulders.  It’s like dealing with the weather.  You’re not going to change it.  You can complain about it, but it doesn’t really seem to help.  So you just live your life as well as you can, and if you really find it intolerable, you can leave.  I think that’s the basic calculus.  But it doesn’t mean that these measures aren’t contrary to China’s best interests.

“So – I don’t get the sense that people are fulminating.  I get the sense that people – there’s a distinction between exit and voice.  I don’t remember whose insight I’m stealing, but it’s not mine.  Within an organization, you can push for change, or you can exit.  And what happens within China, I think, is exit.  No one’s going to, or I think very few people are going to write an open letter to Xi Jinping and say, “tear down this Great Firewall.”  But, people are going to either find something else to do – they’re going to stop being journalists, which we’ve seen happening, and they’re going to go start up a company, which might also do some social good, but then they’re not journalists anymore.  Or, they might come to study in the United States.  You’ve got bloggers, lawyers, on fellowships at places like Harvard, because they’re not wanted at home.  So that’s what you see.  You see exit.”

MKM:  I wanted to get into how you started doing this, about what drew you to wanting to divine the tealeaves of China’s Internet, of China’s cyberspace?

DW: “I wish I could say it was a flash of insight.  But I’d wanted to start my own organization.  And I had a chat, I think it was in October of 2011 with a law school friend, who’d grown up in Chengdu, and now lives in Hong Kong, and knows a lot more about China than I do, and is probably smarter than me.  Her name is Rachel Lu.  And she said, ‘what we should really do is write about Weibo.’   And I said, ‘what’s Weibo?’  And she said, ‘well, it’s this social media platform where people are saying all the things that they wouldn’t ever say to, say, a foreign journalist.  They’re saying all the things they’ve been thinking for awhile, but didn’t have a platform to share it.   And now they’re all talking.  When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in China, I knew how much you had to invest in a relationship to have a conversation like that, to have a conversation about China’s future, or somebody’s personal stake in China’s direction.  You had to invest a lot to have a conversation like that.”

MKM:  “For someone to trust you, and open up.”

DW: “Right, for someone to trust you and open up.  Every cab driver had a strong opinion about the Iraq war, for example, while I was there, but that’s not the same.  They’re not coming from a personal place.  But you were getting people saying things like that online – people that I’d never met.  Perhaps they thought they were just talking to their friends.  But as they learned, they were actually talking to anyone who wanted to listen.  That includes the government.  That includes foreign journalists.  And it was just absolutely fascinating.  There were all these conversations.  I was a fly on the wall, and I felt really privileged to see this. 

MKM:  Yeah, and it must have been kind of a heady thing for Chinese, as they were sharing opinions and getting responses, and realizing they could get traction, that they could maybe move the needle a little bit for, really, the first time in Chinese history, that ordinary citizens, ordinary people, could have that kind of impact.”

DW:  “Absolutely.  Of course, the Chinese government would never say, ‘we withdrew this policy, we retracted this draft law, we acquitted this defendant, because of you, good citizens, sharing your views online.  That – did not happen.  But – there was a widely shared sense that the power of Weibo could affect outcomes.

“For me, one particularly crystallizing moment was the case of Wu Ying, who — I believe in early 2012 — was sentenced to death for basically operating a ponzi scheme.  She had borrowed money on the market at high rates, and to pay it back, borrowed more money on the grey market at high rates.  And she fully intended to pay it back, she said, but that’s not a defense when someone accuses you of a ponzi scheme.  But – over 100 million comments said, ‘this is wrong.  Someone should not be physically punished for an economic crime.  The Supreme People’s Court of China is required, now, to review death sentences, and they did, and they reversed it.  And a lot of commenters were convinced that this was the power of Weibo at work.

“And of course, let’s not forget that you had officials who were caught wearing a belt, or smoking a cigarette, or sporting a watch that no honest official could afford.  And that led to the downfall of a number of officials, where web users got together and said, ‘let’s find out all we can about this character.’  Yang Dacai is a great example, a provincial safety official.  He was spotted smiling at the scene of an accident, despite being a safety official.  Web users decided they hated his guts, basically, and they noticed that he wore expensive watches.  Put it all together – he was sentenced to 14 years for corruption, months after.

“So it was very clear these things were changing.  And I think it’s clear that the Chinese government does appreciate the help, when it comes to finding corrupt officials. Because, as we know from observing China for a long time, the outlying provinces, provincial level, local-level officials, don’t always do what the central government wants them to.  The mountains are high, the emperor is far away – but, what the Chinese government wants is for people to share that information directly, with the CCDI, the Central Disciplinary Commission, and they’ve set up a website for that to happen, but they don’t want everyone to be getting in on the act.”

MKM:  So, actually, how do you read the anti-corruption crackdown going on right now, within China, and how do you read the way it’s being read within China?

DW:  “The anticorruption crackdown is netting people who were indeed corrupt, but this is what outside observers say, I think, that everyone in the Chinese government is to some extent corrupt. Nobody has completely clean hands.  Therefore, the Chinese president’s selection of targets is entirely politically motivated, and people in China know it.  I think it’s easy to agree with the first part, but harder to agree with the second.  I don’t see a lot of people in China saying, ‘wait a minute, this is wrong.’   Some people, if you look at chatter around Zhou Yongkang…

MKM:  The former security chief. 

DW:  “Right, who basically invented this policy of Weiwen, this massive apparatus for the maintenance of internal stability, a widely reviled figure.  When he fell, I think people felt, even if he opposed Xi, and was a loser in a political game, it was more important to them that these people are corrupt – and it’s just nice to see somebody taken down.

“So to answer your question, I think people support it.  And I think, paradoxically, people in China understand that if Xi, and if Wang Qishan, the discipline czar, and if the CCDI, the Central Disciplinary Commission, were to go after everyone who was corrupt, you wouldn’t have a government left.  So I think people appear to me to be willing to forgive, frankly, the fact that it might be politically motivated.  I think it’s popular.”

MKM:  So if you look at the dynamics in China at the moment, you’ve got the crackdown on the Internet, you’ve got the anti-corruption campaign, you’ve got certainly an encouragement of nationalism or patriotism, and actions being taken in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, it feels like it’s a calculation of – we can just keep powering forward, by flipping this switch down, and these two switches up. Do you think it’s working?

DW: That’s a great question. I’m going to give you a really weasely answer, which is – it works until it doesn’t.   And the question we all ask is, are these decisions building up some kind of latent instability within the system, and will that latent instability at some point be expressed in a very sudden way, sort of a Black Swan?  Gosh, I don’t know.  If you look at who supports what, I think people very broadly support the corruption crackdown.  If you look at what’s happening online, I find it very troubling.  I think people in China kind of shrug their shoulders and just deal with it.

“When it comes to China’s actions in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the rhetoric around that, you’ve got a small, very vocal group of people, and by small, I mean only a few tens of millions, who really, really strong support this.   Not only that, people with the loud voice online will often criticize the Chinese government as being a pushover.  Someone in North Korea kidnapped a few Chinese fishermen.  Why are we going to put up with this?  But, look, at the end of the day, Chinese folks are like us and like everyone else.  What they’re really concerned about is their families and their own futures.  And whether China was able to build a landing strip on Mischief Reef matters a whole lot less than whether your only son, who just graduated from Tsinghua University, can find a job.”

MK:  “Sure.  You know, I remember when Weibo was just getting going, former CNN correspondent Rebecca McKinnon, who’s a friend and former colleague, was putting her book together, “Consent of the Networked,” with this counterintuitive argument, what seemed counterintuitive at the time, which was, ‘don’t get too enthusiastic about the impact of the Internet here.  It seems there’s all this momentum building, with people sharing ideas, and how could you possibly put the genie back in the bottle?  The Internet can be controlled.  Just watch.’  Were you surprised to see what happened? And do you feel the genie is sort of half back in the bottle, or do you think a more permanent shift has happened, because of those three years when Weibo could be used freely?”

DW:  “I think the genie is halfway back in the bottle – for now.  I don’t think it’s permanent.  It requires constant work, and maintenance, and the channeling and control of public opinion, and the use of fear and force by the Chinese government, to continue on this path.  And, if you look at what I said before this crackdown started, I was probably too sanguine about where this was all going to go, and about the independent power of the Internet, outside the scope of what the Chinese government could affect or could reach.  I think they learned more quickly than I would have thought, partly because if you looked at what they were doing when I started, in late 2011, early 2012, they were using pretty simple means to try to control opinion.  They would delete stuff.  But – it doesn’t really matter, once a few tens of million of people have seen something.   You can delete it, but now they understand, ‘ok, this is where opinion is going.’  And there wasn’t really a penalty for writing something.  If it was deleted, so what?  Try again.  And the Chinese government, I think, got a lot stricter, And they got a lot more skilled at filling the Internet with their own web-friendly propaganda.  And that all happened fast.  That was surprising.

“But I think it also gets, obliquely, at the answer to the big question.  Because, if I’m getting this right, the prompt is, ‘whose century is it?,’   And, of course, as I learned in school, instead of answering a question, you can just come back with even more questions, like ‘it’s too complicated.’  I think what China’s been able to do with its Internet over the past couple of years shows you the power of a nation-state, vs. the power of a corporation, vs. the power of an independent community.  It was fashionable to say, for example, that some Big Vs had more followers than the Communist Party had members.  More people used Weibo than were members of the Communist Party.  But of course, those ties are much more attenuated, and weak and ephemeral than the Communist Party’s membership.  And ultimately, the Chinese government within China has a monopoly on violence.  That monopoly is one they’ve leveraged very powerfully to shove that genie partly back into the bottle.  But the force with which they’ve reacted also shows you the insecurity that they feel.

“A great example is “Under the Dome,” which was an environmental “Inconvenient Truth”-style documentary by Chai Jing, who’s a gifted journalist.  And it was very, very widely discussed, and it was released –

MKM:  And if I may just interject, a former CCTV journalist.  A former journalist for state-run television. 

DW:  A former CCTV journalist.  Let’s emphasize this.  And, perhaps because of that cred, her documentary got help in the blogosphere from state-owned outlets.  The People’s Daily shared it.  And it was, I think, more widely discussed than anyone in the Chinese government anticipated, so they pulled it down after a few days.  And it just made you think.  You know, they’re not so good yet at figuring out what’s going to be viral, what’s going to be resonant.  Nobody is, right?.  But that X-factor seems to spook the Chinese government.  But, it’s still not a match for their monopoly on force and their monopoly on violence.”

MKM:  Yeah, and yet if they were completely confident in their strength as a nation-state, and in the various levers of power they had to use, to maintain their power, they wouldn’t be operating from a position of fear.  I mean, clearly there’s something else that’s powerful here, too.”

DW:  “Right.  When you look at China, you have to ask a lot of questions about the nature of power.  Right?  Because the system we have in the United States, while it’s young compared to some others, it’s pretty well established.  When the federal government, with few exceptions, passes a rule, states follow.  People say all sorts of nasty things about whoever happens to be running the show at any given time, and if doesn’t really come to anything.  We have that experience.  And the Chinese government really doesn’t.  And having some degree of democratic input is a great way to stress-test this, right, and to clarify where power resides.  And that process hasn’t really happened in China.”

“So, I think, you can look at China and make a very legitimate argument that the state is extremely powerful.  China’s GDP continues to increase, and it will probably, at some point, surpass the United States’ aggregate GDP, and therefore, somebody could say this is China’s century.  But you can also look at the evidence available and also make a compelling argument that China’s leadership is deeply insecure, they’ve got tremendous challenges that they’ve got to face, and that the top-line GDP number doesn’t tell you a whole lot, really, if we’re talking about things like stability, and unity, and a collective vision of what the future should look like.  I’m not saying anyone has that last one.  I think we’re all kind of figuring it out as we go.”

MKM:  “But there’s also confidence, right?  I mean, where others look at the economy and say, ‘I believe in this, I can trust this, I can invest in this, I know more or less what’s going to happen, I know I have recourse if certain things go haywire.  So – I’m kind of wondering, when you look at China’s economy, and so much of it is still opaque – I mean, it’s big, but is that enough?

DW:   “Internally, I think that’s going to be one of the big questions, actually, over the next decade or two – confidence.  You’ve got a generation coming up now, the post-90s in particular, folks who are going to be going into their 30s, who have really only know prosperity.  And I think whether they are confident in the country’s direction is something we’re going to need to watch.  Because the generation before them still has pretty fresh memories of what poverty really looked like.  So, they understand how miraculous it is – miraculous in quotes – but how miraculous it is that you can go to Chongqing, which was an economic backwater 20 years ago, and pay $5 for a latte and go shopping for an Armani suit, if you’ve been saving for a few months.  The younger generation, I think, takes that for granted.

“And so you’ve got this big ‘so what’ hovering over the country – ok, those were great GDP numbers, now, per capita, still behind not only the United States but a number of developing countries.  So now, where do we go with this?  What’s our vision, and what does it mean to achieve a better life?  I don’t know, I think these are these spiritual questions – being asked in earnest.  And I think this is where the country – or the leadership doesn’t really have an answer yet.”

MKM: Xi Jinping’s government has made it clear that it is uncomfortable with certain Western ideas – rule of law, human rights, civil society, democracy.  And some of these ideas – you know, freedom of speech – some of these ideas were certainly circulated when the Internet was being used more, when people were getting exposed more to ideas, not just from the West, but from outside China, by visiting other places and seeing how governments in other places work, how citizens interact with those in power.   Do you think this can be reversed, this understanding of – this is what the world is like, and it’s in contrast to what our lives here are like?

DW:  The Chinese Minister of Education, Yang Guiren, has talked about the potential polluting effects of Western values.  Query whether he believes that.  Xi Jinping says that, but his daughter graduated from Harvard, what was it?  Last year?  So these are, to use a Chinese term, contradictions.  Fundamentally, I think the results have proven out that being connected to the world is a good thing.

“Will people go back to being happy with whatever the Communist Party decides?  No, I don’t think so.   I mean, yes, people still view the Communist Party, by and large, I think, as the only organization capable of running China.  And that’s what any dictator does, right?  They ensure that there is nobody else, no other person, no other organization, who is able to take their place.  And you make sure civil society is weak enough that you’re the only game in town.  The Communist Party has done that.  So I think there are very, very few people, even among the most liberal people, I think it’s a vanishingly small number, I think, who would say ‘you know, what we need is for the Democratic Party of China to run China,’ or, somebody else needs to step in.  I think the question is just, the speed of opening up, the speed of transition from Mao’s party to whatever the future looks like. 

“But I think statements by the Chinese government, or officials within the Chinese government, decrying Westernization, are important, and deserve notice, because they’re sending signals to us, they’re sending signals within China, about which way the winds are blowing.  But I also think people in China, they’ve seen enough about-faces already to understand that the prevailing sentiment now may not be the prevailing sentiment in 5 or 10 years.  So I don’t think there’s really buy-in.  I think there’s submission to it.  Ok, right now it’s going to be tough for NGOs, Western NGOs coming in.  Right now maybe is not the best time for me to make a particular point on Weibo.  But that could change in a couple of years.

“China doesn’t prosper if it’s not a connected place.  I think the leadership gets that much.  But for it to be a connected place, they’ve got, in my opinion, to pull back a little bit, allowing people to be a little more open with what they’re saying.  As long as you have that connectivity, people are going to hold the Communist Party to a different standard, than they might if they are blocked off from the rest of the world.  It’s too late.  It’s too late to go back to that.”

MKM:  And yet, they’re now moving to put Internet police into Sina and Sohu — Internet companies in China, to actually censor from within, instead of letting the companies do it themselves, as they had in the past, which allowed a little bit of wiggle room, a little bit of ideas getting out, at least for a few minutes or a few seconds, so people would see them.”

DW:  “That’s definitely a potentially strong move, one which I find troubling.  The Chinese government has taken a firmer and firmer stance, vis a vis its privately-owned Internet companies.  Three years back, they were pushing for real-name registration. The thinking is, of course, if you have to use your real name, of course you won’t say some of the things you’ve been saying.  Long story short, the evidence doesn’t back that up, and some of these companies, from the glimpses I have gotten, some of them, not all of them, have liberal cultures.  And perhaps because they are Internet companies, they understand the value of expression, and speech, and sharing, and openness.  And so, they have not been falling all over themselves to comply with the Chinese government’s requests.  They’ll take something down if they get a phone call or an email ordering them to do so, but they’re not necessarily going to act proactively.  That’s why the government, I think, is making this move. And, yeah, it’s got to have an effect.  It’s got to have an effect.  It’s a further retreat from the grand promise of the Internet, which is to connect people, and to give people a platform to express themselves.”

MK:  “Chinese companies, including Internet companies, have wanted to have an impact outside China, as well as inside.  Do you think they’re still capable of doing that?

DW:  It’s going to make it harder.  It’s going to make it harder because, moving forward, how are you going to attract the most talented people?  I mean, how?  You can work at a company that’s located in central Beijing, and has a pingpong table, and also has a room with police sitting there, or you can come to Silicon Valley and do whatever you want.  I mean, I just think, it’s got to be bad for these companies, because they’re not going to get the most talented people.  People within China are going to choose to exit, to go elsewhere.  And I don’t know how on earth you garner the prestige and the credibility to attract first-class talent from anywhere else.  So if you want to localize, for example, for the US market, you’ve got to be able to come in and try to poach people from Facebook and Google.  What case can you make, when you’ve got a police officer in Beijing, watching your back?  I just don’t think it’s going to work.  I don’t think it’s going to benefit these companies.  And I would bet that this latest move is leading to some sleepless nights in some of these companies.”

MKM:  “Going back to the big question, ‘whose century is it?’ We’ve talked about nation-states, and that they still matter to some extent, actually to a great extent.  But what else do you think matters in this century, that’s different – the wildcards, or the variables, that maybe some nation-states don’t pay as much attention to as they could, or should?”

DW:  “Yeah.  I think it’s true until it isn’t, that the nation-state remains the most powerful unit, the one able to mobilize people and force and capital to achieve particular goals.  That’s, if it’s not too internally fractious, to actually accomplish those things.  It’s also true until it isn’t, and I think it may remain true for a good length of time, maybe for this entire century, that the United States is going to be the richest and most powerful.  It’s very easy to talk about China surpassing us, but if you look at a lot of indicators, especially when it comes to defense spending, when it comes to the ability to create new innovations and new products, they’re not there yet, and it’s going to take awhile.

“If you’re looking at, what are the other forces at play – how can I say this, in a way that doesn’t sound impossibly abstract – the nation-states and the other organizations that are going to prosper in this century will be the ones that can – I think the more open and the more connected a society or a corporation or a group is, the better it’s going to do.”

MKM:  The more connected, meaning?

DW:  “ I think organizations that foster connectivity, and cooperation and openness are able to unlock a lot of human potential.  And I think, frankly, what you see in the United States proves that out.  And what you’ve seen in China also proves that out, that the country unleashed the latent power of its population, by allowing them to collaborate with each other, allowing them to collaborate across borders, and giving them some degree of creative and expressive space to do so.  The organizations and the nation-states that double-down on that model are going to reap great rewards.

“Because, let’s face it, this is a world full of what an economist might call inefficiencies, and what the rest of us might call tragic degrees of poverty, of oppression.  You have countries that still don’t recognize the value of half their population – women, and girls.  You have tribalism, racism.  And every single one of those people is a victim, But everyone else is a victim, too. Because those people, their talents?  When you don’t educate a young girl, when you don’t give a disabled person a chance to thrive, because they were born in the wrong village in China, you lose something. Everybody loses something.  You lose their talents.  And the more inclusive, and open and connected a society can be, in my opinion, the better chance it has to unleash whatever talent it’s got.

 “There are so many novel and satisfying ways to collaborate across borders.  And this is something I’ve done in my own work.  When you have a Chinese perspective, and a Japanese perspective, and a Nigerian perspective and a German perspective, you put those people together, and you allow them to exchange ideas freely, what you get is so much more powerful and potentially lucrative than what you get in a more closed environment.

“And what’s sad to me is that China’s leadership seems to have, for awhile, gotten that, that ‘we’re going to prosper, because we’re going to let people’s curiosity about the world find expression. And we’re going to let people’s desire to build something lasting, and build something unique, prosper.  Recent moves make me think that they’re kind of pulling back on that.  And that’s why it’s really, really hard to look at the coming century, and look at China right now, and say ‘they’ve got what it takes.’  I think the people want it.  But is the government going to get out of the way?  I don’t know.”

MKM:  “David Wertime, thanks for joining me on Whose Century Is It.

D:  “My pleasure.  Thank you for having me.”

Interested in learning more about China's social media and cyberspace, or about China in general?  Check these out:

China Digital Times


Sinica Podcast

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